So it’s been a July of suspensions: Steve Asmussen we know about; Rick Dutrow we’ve discussed; and last week Ramon Dominguez served three days for careless riding.
Having been in the business for about a decade of assessing infractions and administering consequences, I note these cases with interest. I’ve helped to create discipline policy and I’ve worked closely with students and families as they navigate the procedures. I learned early that any system, regardless of its details, needs to be understandable and comprehensible to all involved, even–especially–when disagreements arise about individual decisions. Any system has to be both predictable and flexible: predictable enough so that those who go through it can have a reasonable and reliable expectation that they’ll be treated as those who have gone before them, and flexible enough for individual circumstances/situations to be considered. And those who oversee the system need to be able to listen to the people on the other side of the table, and adjust when circumstances warrant it.
Now, high school discipline is not racing discipline; perhaps most importantly, one of our main goals at school is education: how can students learn from this experience? How can whatever decisions we make help them to become the people we believe they can be, acting in accordance with the values of our institution? How can we help them avoid making this mistake again, and understand why their behavior is considered unacceptable?
Such factors don’t seem to be at play in the Asmussen/Dutrow/Dominguez cases; I’m not arguing that they should be, though I probably could. I do think, though, that these recent decisions reveal, deliberately or not, some troubling and inherent lessons about what happens if you get in trouble in the racing world.
Dutrow: I’ve made this point already, but the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission was quite explicit that they were not happy that Dutrow chose to try to take advantage of (manipulate? Depends on one’s perspective) the system in place, to take his suspension at a time when it would be least inconvenient to him. According to the Associated Press report in the Saratogian, written by Jeffrey McMurray, the stewards at Churchill Downs (where the infraction occurred) and an officer who heard the appeal both recommended a 15 day suspension; the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted for the 30 day suspension.
Commission executive director Lisa Underwood explained the harsher penalty was
due in part because they felt he was dragging out the process. “He flagrantly
worked the system,” Underwood said.
Matt Hegarty in the Daily Racing Form wrote:
Lisa Underwood, the commission’s executive director, said after the meeting that
commissioners were concerned about comments Dutrow had made last year indicating that he had appealed the suspension in order to avoid serving the days because of his desire to start horses in several stakes races.
“It’s offensive to the betting public to hear that,” Underwood said, adding, “At some point we need to draw a line in the sand and say we have to protect the integrity of the sport.”
Lesson: We don’t mind if you appeal, but keep your mouth shout about why you’re doing it. If you “offend” the racing public, we’re going to nail you. The bad PR is way worse than the initial infraction.
Asmussen: Steve Asmussen’s horse tested positive for an overage of lidocaine; he maintained that he never administered the drug to the horse, and requested that a blood sample, which would be more conclusive than the urine sample that was taken, be submitted for consideration, because the amount of detected lidocaine was minute. From Gary West:
The test results on the urine sample taken from Timber Trick after she won at
Lone Star in May, 2008, suggest contamination, according to Steven Barker, the
chief chemist for the laboratory at LSU. Testing the blood, he said, would be
conclusive. But a request to have the blood tested was denied. A request to
quantify the level of the metabolite in the urine was denied.
From Karen Johnson in the Blood-Horse:
[The Texas Racing Commission] maintained that the amount of lidocaine in the
system was not of consequence because of Texas’ zero-tolerance policy for the
medication, which is rated as a Class 2 violation by the Association of Racing
Lesson: We’re the bosses; we have rules; details don’t matter; we’re not interested in finding out the truth and assigning appropriate consequences, just in meting out consequences and holding a hard line.
Dominguez: As reported in the Daily Racing Form by Dave Grening on July 9th, Ramon Dominguez, leading rider at Belmont, was suspended for three days for careless riding.
Dominguez will take the days Wednesday through Friday. The suspension was
reduced from seven days for Dominguez waiving his right of appeal.
The article appeared on a Thursday. Presumably, the decision had been made at the latest earlier in the day; the suspension took effect nearly a week later, and Dominguez didn’t miss that Saturday’s racing—including his mount on the favorite and eventual winner of the Grade I Man o’ War.
Lesson: it’s OK for jockeys in New York to arrange suspensions to have the least deleterious financial effect, but not OK for trainers in Kentucky to do the same.
And: if you admit that we’re right without a fight, we’ll lessen the penalty. If you agree with us, we’ll make sure that you lose less money than you otherwise would.
I recognize that there’s quite a bit of apples to oranges to pears here—two different types of medication violations; one trainer who admits the overage, another who doesn’t; med violations and riding violations; the regulations of three different states. As we all know, apples to apples comparisons are impossible.
But it’s useful, I think, to look at these three cases and ask whether their results are in the best interests of the sport; whether they do anything to address the underlying problems that led to the infractions and prevent future such infractions; and whether the systems in place fairly and adequately deal with the complex situations brought before them.